This is what you went to law school for. Although you’ve been preparing for this for years, handling your first case and going to trial can be terrifying. Nearly every person you look to for advice will have plenty to give. Most will tell you to prepare, if not over-prepare.
Even when you do all of the things that your mentors or peers suggest that you do, there can still lurk the shadow of doubt. Believe it or not, it’s alright if you’re nervous. It’s also reasonable to continually ask yourself whether the judge or the jury will see through you and if they take you seriously. Will you ask the right questions of the witnesses in court? Will the opposing counsel turn all of your hard work against you?
Nearly all of these things can cause anxiety even among experienced attorneys, so rest assured, you’re not alone. Utah law professor Abigail Pittoff wrote in the Utah Law Review that, “To practice law is to be afraid. Show me a lawyer who is unconcerned about their client’s situation, and I will show you a lawyer who should be fired.”
Pittoff’s point is clear. Every good attorney, even the ones with experience, should be facing at least some anxiety. Even so, there are ways that can level it out so you can act effectively on your client’s behalf. Here are some ways to help to get you through your first court experience with a whole lot less stress.
Be prepared for trial
The five P’s of Trial cannot be overstated: Prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare! Do your homework and know the facts surrounding the case. Be sure to read and re-read all depositions, witness statements, documentary evidence legal precedence that pertain to your case and jury instructions. If necessary, go to the scene of the crime or the accident and try to look at it from the vantage point that your client.
The key for preparation is often being as organized as possible before you get there. Have all of your documents in logical order. If at all possible, go to the courtroom where you are scheduled to appear and get the layout and overall feel of the location. Anything you can do to familiarize yourself with the facts and the situation beforehand will lower the level of fear.
Focus on what’s relevant
When preparing to present your case, try to stay focused on the facts. During the course of the trial, write down notes and possible cross-examination questions to ask of witnesses and anything else that may be relevant. When doing this, it is easier to spot potential holes in the opposing side’s arguments or even in your own case. It can be easy to go off on an emotional tangent, so keep yourself focused on the facts.
Know the opposing counsel
Every attorney has their own style and they tend to lean on that style for the majority of cases that go to trial. Find out who will be on the opposite side of the courtroom and examine what types of arguments they tend to use in court. Do they submit a lot of documentary evidence or do they more of a storyteller for the jury? Once you know this, you can strategize in advance what you’ll do in response.
Find out about the judge who will be hearing the case
While the judicial system requires judges to be fair and impartial when hearing cases, judges also have their own style. Each has a way that they prefer things to go within their courtroom. When you find out who will be hearing your case, asking colleagues for a bit of insight about the judge, their temperament and their preferences can definitely help.
Establish a stress reduction routine
Stress is the number one cause of career burnout. Nearly every successful lawyer establishes a routine for trial days and the day to day stresses in a number of different ways. You may have a specific tie or piece of jewelry or coin that you keep in your pocket on trial days. Many people, even attorneys, have an established habit of meditation as a way to calm their minds and be more focused.
Always look and act like a legal professional
When looking for someone to represent them, clients have several things in mind when choosing someone to represent them. Looking and sounding like a competent lawyer means dressing and acting the part. It’s probably best to choose a suit that is dark in color and to avoid any form of ostentation when it comes to jewelry or accessories. Clothes should be clean and pressed and shoes should be in good shape and be polished before your court appearance.
Rich Newsome, attorney at a product liability firm in Orlando recommends, “In any type of trial, you are a central character in the action that is playing out in the courtroom.” Be mindful that you and your client are being observed constantly by the judge, the jury and anyone else in attendance. You want your appearance and your actions to give that impression. This also means being as authentic as possible while keeping a sharp focus on speaking clearly, being respectful, courteous and above all, professional.
While that may be easy to say, being able to think on your feet takes practice and skill. This skill is one that you will draw upon your entire career as an attorney. That means not being overly sensitive when receiving criticism, constructive or otherwise whether it comes from the bench, from colleagues or even from your clients. Take the criticism and feedback and adjust your approach in the future if the criticism is valid.
It’s inevitable that you will make mistakes along the way. Take it for granted that those mistakes are all a part of the learning process and are instrumental in developing your skills as an attorney. Each of these qualities are things that need to be given time to develop. Not every lawyer wins every case. Just do your best!